Directed by Ryan Coogler, 2018’s Black Panther became an immediate cultural icon. Met with a strong critical reception and earning over 1.3 billion at the box office, Black Panther became a household name for audiences. A gem for both comic book fans and general audiences alike, the film was praised for its strong writing, powerful performances and cultural relevance. The film’s stunning cinematography, particularly in sequences like Killmonger burning the garden or T’Challa meeting his father in the astral plane, highlight the film. One year later, the film continues to be a mainstay in pop culture and one of the most memorable Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
Black Panther was the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a franchise that has always tended to lean towards a more comedic and simplified approach to storytelling, Ryan Coogler took the character in a more serious and focused direction. Where most MCU films tend to have an overly simplified villain, a Saturday morning cartoon plot and comedic and cheesy undertones, Black Panther was in a completely separate class. Close in tone to Captain America: Winter Soldier, the film forgoed most of the humor in exchange for powerful messages and environments for the audience to explore. Ryan Coogler, coming off of films like Fruitvale Station and Creed, brings his sense of nuance and technical skills in constructing Black Panther. Coogler directed the film with a talented ensemble cast, impactful themes and a keen sense of culture and texture unseen in the comic book medium.
Ludwig Göransson composed Black Panther’s original score and greatly amplified the film. Winning him an Oscar for his work, Göransson spoke on immersing himself in Africa’s diverse range off cultures, sounds and feels when coming up with the score. The score breathed life into this film that previous Marvel films have generally lacked. Killmonger’s theme and Wakanda’s theme bleeds into the film’s story and characters, beautifully constructing Wakanda in a multi-layered way with a memorable score, impactful themes and complex villain. Tonal variety has always been the achilles heel for the franchise, Black Panther however leaned into what Winter Soldier, Iron Man and ultimately led to the darker tone of films like Avengers: Infinity War. On a technical level, Ruth E. Carter, the costume designer for the film, also won an Oscar for her work with Black Panther. Once again drawing inspiration from various African cultures, Carter further fleshes out Wakanda with multi layered colors and textures. For Black Panther’s suit, she took inspiration from Michael Wilkinson work on Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel & Batman v Superman, particularly with the engraving of Wakandan language into the suit much like Kryptonian was embedded in Superman’s.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Black Panther was the villain. Ryan Coogler masterfully blended the arcs of both the protagonist and antagonist, without having one overpower the other in respect to narrative. The MCU is at its peak when both hero and villain flourish concurrently as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Infinity War being prime examples of this approach. In the case of Killmonger, the story arc he follows is ultimately not so different from that of a hero. The injustice done to him in his past, shaped his actions in the future. Brilliantly performed by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger came off a character who betrayed by his bloodline and left to grow up in a society that did not treat him equally. Like many of the greatest comic book villains, Killmonger does everything with a purpose and truly believes in his motivations as an act of good. The motivations that drive him and his intentions are not completely wrong in a sense, just broken. A contemporary example of someone who believed in the same principles but in the correct way was Nakia, who made it clear she wanted Wakanda to use its resources to help others.
What makes Killmonger an impressive villain was his complete devotion to set things “right” in his point of view. Criticizing Wakanda for its selfish way of life and standing idle when the rest of the continent was being pillaged and brought into slavery, Killmonger rightfully identifies a tremendous issue. Although the means in which he goes about achieving his goal is misguided, the rage and hate that has built up inside him fueled his pathway into becoming this unjust character. Black Panther is a film about family and consequences. Killmonger was a product of Wakanda’s making and it is up to T’Challa to not only pay for the sins of his father, but to be the first king to bring real change. The multidimensionality of the story is what keeps audiences so invested throughout.
The cultural significance brought by Black Panther took the impact of the film to another level. With a predominately Black cast and with people of color driving the film in front of and behind the camera, Black Panther was always going to be something new. A quick way to see how the impact has reached far was the 2019 Oscars. Both Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first African American women to win Oscars in their respective fields. Ryan Coogler, one of the most talented young directors of our time, continues to bring powerful films into the medium. Although there have been comic book films led by people of color before, Black Panther undoubtedly had a larger effect on audiences and wider pop culture as a whole and changed the game for films to come.
Overall, the true legacy of Black Panther will be the films that spawn from it. There can never be enough films celebrating different cultures and marginalized groups. Much like Wonder Woman broke ground for modern blockbusters with female leads, Black Panther did the same. Films like Captain Marvel followed the path that Wonder Woman laid out and hopefully films like Cyborg and others can spawn from the success of Black Panther. On a personal level, the film means a lot to me. Last year, my brothers and I took part in the Black Panther Challenge. Raising over $5000 in less than ten days, it was an incredible experience taking 400 kids from Bronx, NY to see the film. Seeing their faces and expressions live as the film played is a moment I will never forget and only drives home how important this film really is. One year later, Black Panther remains of the best films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a true pop culture icon.